U.S. public education has been mired in a technocratic paradigm—a narrow pursuit of efficiency through metrics-based science—since the early 1900s (Kliebard, 1995; Kincheloe, Steinberg, & Hinchey, 1999). In recent years, the accountability era has shifted deeper into that technocratic hole, adding to school and student accountability based on high-stakes test the use of value added measures (VAM) for identifying teacher quality and reforming teacher accountability.
Often the debate about VAM rests on how (or how better) to implement VAM—not whether it is a legitimate process to address the key problems facing public education.
Stepping back from how to address if and why, Joe Kincheloe (Thomas & Kincheloe, 2006) envisions a different paradigm, postformalism:
"[P]ostformalists insist that educational psychologists and educators must avoid placing complex multidimensional problems of teaching and learning into simple psychological boxes and blaming the victims of socio-political forces. Postformalists point out that such reductionist approaches illustrate yet again the decontextualizing tendencies of too much of the psychological educational practices that find their way into schools, as they substitute individual remedies for larger social problems....Seeking the best way to quantify and then rank teachers by their quality is the essential problem, not how to best implement VAM.
"In the pathologizing and victim-blaming deficit model of contemporary educational psychology, the hurtful practices of reductionistic, decontextualized approach to the complex nature of thinking can be seen in crystal clarity." (pp. 142-143)
Stepping Back from the VAM Ledge
As a postfomalist and critical educator, I must state that seeking any sort of VAM policies is a profound mistake. I am not seeking the best way to implement VAM, the best way to identify quality teachers, the best way to incorporate teacher accountability, the best way to create a merit-pay system in education. These are all metric-based, and thus reductionist and deficit-driven, and ill suited to address the larger goals of public education, the problems facing public schools, and the reform needed to seek equity and opportunity for all students.
Well before I can concede any validity in pursuing VAM—either as a statistical or accountability exercise—I must ask that several other conditions be met, including the following:
(1) Clarify the primary goals of public education, and then identify and rank the most pressing problems facing public education and that institution's ability to achieve those goals. Include out-of-school, in-school, and in-classroom aspects of those problems and the causational sources of those problems.
(2) Identify that teacher quality is a major causational factor in the identified problems facing public education; and show that the need for uniformly high teacher quality is uniquely different (and in negative ways) than in other professions (in other words, all professions have a range of quality; thus, why is teaching uniquely above that norm?).
(3) Show that teacher quality is a more pressing problem in educational outcomes than student access to teacher quality. [The current problem with teacher quality is not a lack of quality, but that high-poverty, racial minority, special needs, and ELL students are disproportionately assigned to new and un-/under-certified teachers.]
(4) Ensure (and then justify time and funding) that VAM controls for all variables beyond the control of the opportunities teachers offer students to learn. In other words, focus on opportunities provided, not narrow outcomes.
(5) Guarantee that VAM-type evaluations of teachers will be implemented in order to support teacher growth, and not as a mechanism for sorting, firing, and rewarding teachers.
Until education reform begins with clearly defined problems and the sources of those problems, policies and experiments with VAM are bureaucratic and technocratic fiddling while schools and our students' futures burn in the background.
Teacher quality is not the or even one of the major obstacles to greater student learning.
But a technocratic and metric-based pursuit of quantifying teaching and learning—the decades-long accountability paradigm driven by standards and high-stakes test—is a demonstrable failure.
We must stop looking for the best way to use tests, we must stop looking for the best tests.
VAM has no value in education reform, except as a tragic distraction from human realities that do deserve our attention beyond assigning numbers and creating ranks that "plac[e] complex multidimensional problems of teaching and learning into simple psychological boxes and blam[e] the victims of socio-political forces."